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On “A Midwife’s Tale”: Analysis of Plot and Historical Method

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Laurel Ulrich’s work, A Midwife’s Tale, was regarded at the time of its publication as a groundbreaking achievement in American social history, and it has stood the test of time, as it is still lauded and part of historical scholarship today. The work focuses on the extensive diary of Martha Ballard, a midwife who was born in Massachusetts in 1735 and experienced the rapidly changing environment that was eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America. It is remarkable to generally consider the historical events and forces that occurred during her lifetime and how they reverberated throughout society- the American Revolution, the westward-expanding frontier, et cetera.

She began her diary in 1785 at the age of fifty, and continued it faithfully until just before her death in 1812. Ulrich acknowledges early on the gravitas of the fact that the diary survived to see the present, as well as establishing that a great deal can be explicated and divulged from it about early American life. Its existence was known by scholars for some time, but the ramifications of its contents were not adequately explored. Central to the thesis of Ulrich’s work is an extensive discussion of just what a treasure trove of historical insight this document provides; the most rudimentary quandaries as to why Martha Ballard decided to keep this diary and how she chronicles her experiences set the stage for a compelling, thorough, and fresh investigation of the medical profession, gender roles, sexual mores, social and familial structures, and most importantly, how people in this era dealt with the crises of their lives.

It must be established that A Midwife’s Tale is a masterful work. It is only with vast historical expertise of early America borne in elegant prose that this work is so powerful. She creates a narrative that is grounded in the empirical methodology, drawing from not only Ballard’s diary, but an array of historical sources; however, she does not simply translate and pass on the events recorded. The rather terse excerpts pulled from Ballard’s extensive journal at the beginning of each chapter serve as a point of departure and empirical reinforcement to a greater discussion of early American society that follows. The painstaking research, beautiful writing, and ability to make compelling history by gleaning humanity and relevance from a vintage document are all present here and well-practiced. The story begins with selected passages dated August 1787.

Ulrich lays the framework of the nature of Martha Ballard’s work, and uses that as a point of departure to explore the events of her life and conditions of her profession. There was a Scarlet Fever in the summer of 1787, and Ballard chronicles the devastation it wrought. However, the specter of death and disease are juxtaposed with and countered by the profession of midwifing, of bringing new life into the world. They served as physicians in less dire medical situations, and were also charged with bringing delivering infants and keeping the mother alive. Martha Ballard, it just so happens, was apt in her practice.

The nature of the medical profession is laid bare, as physicians, like the midwife Ballard, had other duties as a neighbor and member of a family. The medical profession changes a great deal throughout the course of the work as Ulrich contends, with physicians usurping to a more important position in treating the ailing as the importance of the midwife waned. The metaphor of the “checkered cloth” proves effective in establishing a simple, aphoristic way to begin to explore the nature of gender roles and values in early frontier America. The worlds of men and women were separate, although they did overlap.

However, it may come as a surprise to readers that women were not simple, domestic creatures, but rather agential in the finances of the household and community. Ulrich even stakes the possibility, or probability, that this diary was a tool for keeping record of her work, both as a midwife and weaver. Her diary, as the author points out, reveals a great deal about the gender hierarchies in society, in part through the titles used and how they denote the mentioned man or woman’s marital or professional status. Though males dominated the public sphere, Ulrich posits that this reality did not keep both men and women from being economically active. Through her unpacking of the incident between the Fosters and Henry Sewall the nature of gender hierarchies in the public sphere are embodied in Ballard’s diary entry.

Even when evidence, like a pregnancy, was there, indictments against men often deferred. The selected passage from November of 1792 is a rather intriguing chapter in its exploration of marital and sexual mores. Laurel Ulrich shatters the chaste, Puritan archetypes that are evoked when initially considering the customs of early America. She contends and provides evidence that the realities of the day were, in fact, that courtships were commonly not parentally arranged, did progress unsupervised, and involved premarital sex more often than not. A rather interesting custom explicated is the fact there was a month-long period after the wedding where the bridegroom was responsible for providing a house and the bride for household items and furnishings. The anecdote in Ballard’s diary about the nature of premarital pregnancy was explored and contextualized very well, as it presents the legal conditions surrounding sexual and familial values.

Though the mother had to admit to fornication and assume fines, the male was legally obligated to provide support- to marry in the case of the Jonathan Ballard and Sally Pierce. One compelling interpretation that Ulrich lays forth for her reader is that it was easier for a woman to file for support than to have a man convicted of rape. One aspect of this book that makes is great it how surprising this information is and its reverberation in contemporary history. Martha’s midwifing practices serve as an excellent point of departure for an exploration of the medical field of the day, especially the interactions and contentions between midwives and physicians. Martha was incredibly deft in her work, and the fact that the young, male physician who takes up midwifing unsuccessfully point to the changing nature of learned medicine.

The community gathering and support around a birthing mother made the midwifing profession all the more relevant to social history. However, the following chapter sharply contrasts this as Martha falls on hard times. Her daughters are married and moved away, leaving her to take care of her household alone. She is in a great deal of pain, and the community does not exactly come to her aid. The evidence of the shifting tides in the field of medicine adequately explored in her entries from February 1801. The author includes the anecdote of one of the four autopsies to which Ballard would bear witness. However, Ulrich contends that the influence of midwives, and thus women, in the medical field was in fact waning. Other medical professionals recognize her expertise and invite her to view the autopsy, but this was becoming increasingly scarcer.

Her interactions with Doctor Cony are a juncture from which to explore some larger historical trends. This book has parts that are rather morose, but very powerful. Ballard’s life becomes much more difficult as she ages. Her husband is jailed because of discrepancies in his collecting taxes, and he treats it like a vacation. Martha struggles, especially in the winter, and she now finds herself more dependent on her children. Through the passages about the murder and suicide in Captain Purrington’s household, a compelling exploration of how people in this time faced tragedy is striking to the reader. It is a situation that people today can relate to, while it also explore how people historically confronted tragedy- through piety and community support.

The descriptions in the last chapter of the frontier warfare and crippling realities of the Jefferson embargo further explore how families and communities coped with the larger malevolent forces of the world in which they lived. Martha reflects over her life in this time, and the author wraps up the book by positing the simple, compelling fact that there would be no record of this woman, nor her life, works, or even name if not for this diary. Ulrich’s explication of how Martha Ballard’s diary survived and became involved in the historical process included in the “Epilogue” serve as an excellent point of departure to delve into the historical craft and what this book truly aims to accomplish.

The gravity of the existence of this historical document, its preservation, and how it made its way from the hands of her family into the hands of scholars is the kind of thing that dreams are made of for a historian. Martha Ballard’s diary is a true rarity, and a priceless relic of early American history. The rarity of the document itself lends the historian enumerable suppositions as to the conditions of American society contemporary to the midwife. The author does a swell job of imparting to the reader the gravity of a document this intricate, full of priceless historical insight, and, most surprisingly, penned by a woman.

The existence of women in on a subjugated plane in the public sphere compared to that of their male counterparts influenced legal proceedings, familial structures, economics, and other areas of life; the fact that girls were largely uneducated, much less could have crafted a journal as intricate as this one, is worth taking a moment to remark upon. It is only because of this woman’s work that we even know of her existence, as Ulrich points out the lack of her name on land deeds and other official documentation. This is her life, at least what we know of it from aged fifty until her. However, the directly quoted entries in the work itself are undoubtedly very difficult for the common reader to really understand and convoluted enough that anyone but an expert in the field would have a tough row to hoe when gleaning meaningful information from.

What makes this work so incredible is the magnanimous fulfillment and marriage of the two challenges a historical document presents to the historian- to interpret the document in honest way and to contextualize it responsibly. The challenges presented by this particular document are incredible. The journal entries themselves number somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand, and this journal begins when she was fifty! The amount of painstaking research and translation that were inevitably required is incredible. And though the physical diary could lend itself to many tomes, Ulrich extracts very colorful and nuanced experiences of this woman’s life that fly in the face of what many people assume or even known about the conditions of early American society, such as the ways women were very active economic entities and an overhaul of how societal values and customs were carried out.

Though her handling of the diary itself is important, the work is composed of larger ideas that place the document in the context of American life at the time, and that is what makes this book consequential to early American studies and the modern day. The historian’s expertise and the way that she articulates it really milk a great deal of historical insight into all facets of early American life from a relatively small portion of the original document. Her skills as a compelling writer, her scrupulous method, and the sheer breadth of her knowledge of early America are evident in her past works and all come together to make insight out of a valuable and difficult primary source.

It could be seen as an even more monumental feat given the lack of information technology and capabilities of Ulrich’s day, compared to those that followed in decades after the publication of A Midwife’s Tale. The diary itself is vast, but there is a great deal that is Ballard does not detail. Ulrich’s prowess in contextualizing this diary composes most of the book, and some of the more poignant insights. She not only devoted herself to a study of the diary, but her research into other types of historical documents is impressive as well. There is specific documentation, like land deeds, economic records, and other pieces of the historical record that work in conjunction with the journal and draw consequential connections to early American society at large.

It would take a true expert to evaluate the thoroughness and honesty of her work, but it seems extensive and responsibly-handled for most readers. One example from the work itself that really stood out as impressive was her handling of Martha Ballard’s records of the births she handled. There is detailed information about the time and place, sex and condition of the child, and condition of her patients. However, what strikes the reader is how Ulrich explores the omission of more detailed information surrounding the birthing process. Even in her private diary, she would not proffer the more graphic or personal medical details of the operations. Though this may not strike a lay reader as abnormal, it has important implications when considering the values of Ballard’s society.

This work may not indeed seem that monumental to a lay reader or historian today, but at the time of its publication, it truly broke ground. For one, it embodied the virtues of a “history-from-below” approach, as well as making important feminist insights. This is an extraordinary story of a relatively average woman, wife, mother, grandmother, and midwife from this time period. She lived her life in a period ripe with change, and her experiences are relevant to the overarching, big-picture history as well, such as the phenomena of frontier life and the effects of the Jefferson embargo. Ulrich uses the recollections of a rather small portion of Ballard’s life in conjunctions with other sources and her knowledge to make this work much more consequential than simply translating, clarifying, and publishing the more important diary entries.

Her presentation of females as bold, agential individuals counters the domesticated housewife assumptions that most people have about women before 1950. Her recognition of the ways in which women struggled for agency and were often denied it- as in legal proceedings, sexuality, et cetera. The reader can gain perspective on not only women, but grasp the nature of the homo-social and hetero-social (i.e. tavern outings and unsupervised courtships) aspects of society. This work is chock full of compelling, nuanced historical interpretations. A Midwife’s Tale is in itself is a great history book, but would be very difficult for a lay reader to get through; it is almost four hundred and fifty pages, after all.

Ulrich once stated that it turned out to be three times longer than she originally intended, and it is not surprising that this occurred given the intricacy and length of the diary itself. It is thoroughly researched and groundbreaking, especially at the time of publication, in studies of early America. It is not simply a biography of Martha Ballard, but it draws parallels between her experiences and the conditions of her society as they can best be interpreted from today’s perspective. Through investigating this woman’s life and what we can gather about when and where she lived, an amalgam of insights come forth, touching on almost every facet of frontier life- religion, economics, social structures, politics, gender studies, the field of medicine, and much more.

It ultimately seeks to redefine not just how people view women of the period, but how people view the position of men and women by chronicling the happenings of a family and community. The book tears down many stereotypes and preconceptions, especially about women, but it is so diverse in its approach that it touches on every aspect of life in a way that is comprehensible and irrevocably enlightening.

Discussion Question: What are some comparisons and contrasts that can be drawn between the depictions of social mores, especially pertaining to gender and sexuality, in A Midwife’s Tale and the Smith-Rosenberg essay?

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